episode 38 - Rethinking research in early childhood education

Rethinking Research in Early Childhood Education

This is a transcript of the Preschool Podcast, episode #38“Rethinking research in early childhood education”

Check all episodes of The Preschool Podcast


Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“


This week, we’re on episode 38 of The Preschool Podcast. We discuss the importance of being inquisitive in the classroom with William Parnell,  department chair of Curriculum and Instruction, and a pedagogical liaison to the Helen Gordon Child Development Center at Portland State University.  In our conversation, we talk about rethinking the traditional approach to early childhood education that emphasizes quantitative assessments through testing for results.  Instead, William describes what rethinking research would look like, where teachers become participants that work alongside children and their families to learn more about early childhood development, rather than studying them objectively.

If you’re a teacher looking for inspiration on how to rethink the way you teach and incorporate a more qualitative approach, then stay tuned for this episode of the preschool podcast.


Will welcome to the Preschool Podcast! Great to have you on the show.

William PARNELL: Thanks, thanks, I’m very happy to be here.

SPREEUWENBERG: So as a starting point, perhaps you can just tell us a bit about what you do at Portland State University [PSU]?

PARNELL: Well that’s been a changing dynamic for me. Before I actually was officially hired I was I was substitute teaching in the lab school at the Helen Gordon Child Development Center. And I was also doing a thousand other things – working in before-and-after school, teaching kindergarten. I had come from the lab school at the University of Oregon and had taught there for a number of years as a preschool teacher.

So when I got to PSU, full time, I was co-directing the Helen Gordon Child Development Center. And part of my role was to extensively hire and do ongoing professional learning with student employees. So I had about 60 to 80 student employees working in the lab school part time. And they would rotate in and out of the… at the time we had about seven classrooms. And then we grew that program, the lab school, to 12. We expanded a historic building that was actually on the landmark registry for being historic building that PSU owned. And we renovated the original building and we added new classrooms so we can have infants, toddlers, preschool and kindergarten all in one location at PSU.

And that’s when I started to grow the kind and need and dynamic in our graduate school of education with a master’s degree with the professors who were… at the time we had two professors who were here. And so we were growing this master’s, connecting it to the lab and making this sort of synergy through our own growth at Helen Gordon Center.

And I was bringing in the Reggio approach, the ideas, the concepts from what I was learning about both internationally and regionally, and also through lots of other work with schools across the United States. We were involved with Louise Cadwell and her folks in St. Louis. And we were involved with people from Santa Monica. And we were bringing Lella Gandini here, and we had various other folks in the Portland area wanting to explore all that with us. So we had this really great synergy happening on our campus with growing a master’s degree program, connecting with the lab school more strongly – it had sort of always had connections. But we were really forging alliances.

So then I got hired once they finished my doctoral degree into a professor role and started to coordinate that master’s program and kept my role – my Dean wanted me to keep my role at Helen Gordon Center, not as director but as a pedagogical liaison, pedagogical director. So I kept working with the teachers, the educators in the center and kept working with the students in the master’s program and really developed that into its own full master’s degree program over time, and then have since kind of grown my own capacity here from assistant professor to associate and then associate professor to full professor.

And then I was asked to lead the department of curriculum and instruction. So when our former chair retired last year I took on the role and am now the department chair for curriculum and in all of curriculum and instruction, which includes the teacher licensure program for elementary and secondary education and includes a master’s degree for K-12 folks. And so my role has really shifted, and I’ve been moving away sadly in this last year from my direct roots of early-childhood, even though I still go to conferences and I still present and right now I’m the vice president of our national organization, and I’m the chair of a significant interest group for AERA, the [American Education] Research Association. So I’m trying to keep my feet in the door before I’m swallowed up into administration.

But I think it’s an excellent story though, having grown from being an educator at the Helen Gordon Child Development Center to the department chair. It’s so great to have that practical roots coming from the classroom.

Yeah, I think so. I’ve always seen that as a fundamental part of teacher-education work. So whenever we hire any teacher-educator professor into our department we actually request that they have a minimum of three years of direct classroom teaching. Whether we’re hiring in secondary education we want to see someone who taught in high school, right? So maybe before or while they were doing their dissertation and getting their doctoral degree.

So it’s an interesting sort of culture we created here in our department, about wanting that strongly held, because we need the students to understand we’ve been there. We have our own experiences. And then we also still go out and supervise and work in schools and connect schools. And I’ve done that for over the years, too. My work has included working with many other schools and the lab. But kind of maintaining that hub through the through the lab to try and connect out, get their stories told – hear the voices of children, families, teachers at that school.


Now you’ve also done some of your own research and coauthored several papers and books. And one of your latest books – Disrupting Early Childhood Education Research: Imagining New Possibilities – I’d like to dive a little bit deeper into what that’s all about.


Do you have anything specific you’re looking for?

SPREEUWENBERG:– Let’s first hear what it is in a nutshell. What’s the topic that you’re covering with this book?

I have spent quite a long time researching and writing through my career – that’s part of the tenure line process that we have here at PSU is that we write and we research and published in peer-reviewed journals. And then over time you develop and establish your voice and write books and all that. So this book – Disrupting Early Childhood Education Research – came about for my good friend and colleague, Jeanne Marie Iorio, and me because we were really fascinated. We were going to the conferences… the American Educational Research Association and it’s the largest Research Association for educators. It’s this huge conference, annually. And it’s hard to present there. It’s hard to get in. A lot of peer review happens and there’s few papers in comparison to what’s submitted by everyone.

So we started getting accepted, and we created this troupe of people who were writing on research methodology. Because what we found is that in early-childhood we were seeing the federal and state monies coming down that actually supported very similar kinds of quantitative statistical analysis trajectory kind of information, sort of like longitudinal databases – like, “How often is the child in the classroom?” And, “Can we track that over time and see how successful they are if they are there more often?” These kinds of interesting sort of quantitative pieces of data.

And we sort of wanted to re-conceptualize that and trouble that and say: “Actually in early-childhood we are all about the story of the voice, the perspective, the experience.” And for young children, for us that tracking information could be important for policy wonk and that kind of thing. For us we feel like there’s this other component that was sort of happening all along but was missing maybe in the mainstream. It’s not like we’re trying to push what we do to be mainstream. We’re actually trying to create cracks and fissures in the mainstream so that people trouble what it is that they’re trying to do so, that people think more strategically about, like, “What do we really need as human beings on a planet, living with a planet? What is it we’re really doing?”

So for us that disrupting early-childhood research became this real interest. We wanted to know, what were researchers doing across the world? And we received probably 48 proposals for chapters within two weeks. Some people handed us chapters the day after we asked. So we felt like this was actually a very important perspective and voice to bring forward, was the ED researcher or teacher researcher who’s working, that person who’s working in the field with children, with families, with teachers, and working alongside of them so they’re not working over them, or looking at them as researched. Does that make sense? Rather than that they’re actually walking side by side with them saying, “What are your experiences? What’s happening for you? Can we actually collect that, bring it back to you see if what we’re saying actually accurately represents what it is you wanted us to say?” And then bringing that forward.

So that’s the kind of research practice we looked at in this book and we brought forward. And the nice thing is that it sort of has this great qualitative nature to every chapter, and every single chapter is different in this first volume. We have a second volume that’s coming out, called Rethinking Research In Early Childhood Education. We went from rethinking readiness as an issue to disrupting research to now rethinking research. So it’s an interesting trajectory for us.


And why do you think that we’ve struggled to move away from these more quantitative assessments, things like traditional assessments and testing and teaching methods? And you’re sort of advocating for this more qualitative research, but why do you think we’re struggling to get there?

So we’re pretty steeped in what many of us in this line of work – in the re-conceptualize world that I’m involved in early-childhood – many of us would think that we collectively across the world are steeped in colonialist research perspective. Like the only thing that counts is when you can actually get to a number, because there’s a belief that when you’re sharing the numbers then you’ve wiped clean the bias. And it’s like, we know that’s not true. We know that’s not true because even when you’re sharing numbers it’s your researcher bias that you’ve brought forward because that’s what you were looking for. Now you might have found something different, but it’s the questions you still asked.

So it’s interesting, you see how I immediately begin to trouble these notions that this sort of quantitative statistical analysis give us the answers? And it’s like, well, they give some answers. And I tell my students, “Look, I wouldn’t be alive. I’m diabetic and I take medication. And had there not been clinical trials and experimental design with people who volunteered for that I probably wouldn’t be alive without these medications, without the insulin. And all that stuff came out of that rigorous scientific quantitative statistical analysis. But behind all of that were still the people, were still the places, were still the planet and the animals and all these other sort of layers.

And so for us we’re saying that quantitative… it’s not that it’s the evil. It’s not that. It’s that it’s one way of thinking about this, and that there’s another way to think about this. And actually then it’s pluralistic, because it’s through that qualitative way there are many, many ways. So I mean, quantitative, you could say the same thing. It’s just that, for me, the qualitative nature of research and the story-making, the narration of people’s lives, the auto-ethnography work that people do… yeah, there are details about that that researchers have had to sort of respond to and sort of answer to about ethics, about processes, about all of that.

But at the same time it still brings forward really good, rich data in this qualitative way. And what we’re saying is there’s lots of ways to do that. It’s not just always: “Go in and observe and take field notes,” and see this researcher with the white cloak on with your goggles and your magnifying glass looking in on it. You can be a participant. You can engage in these other ways.

Just to contextualize this a little bit more for our listeners, do you know of any specific examples of interesting qualitative research in early-childhood education?


My book! I mean, not to be completely narcissistic. So I know of really good examples…? So I think about someone like, let’s say, Peter Moss’s work. I mean, if I were not to look at my own work here that we put forward, which includes… it’s this work that Jeanne and I have created; we’re editing. So we’ve included lots and lots of other people from around the world. But there are many people who come before us. There’s the work of Peter Moss and Gunilla Dahlberg, and those folks. And then there’s the work that Bill Ayers has produced in the world … there’s a great book called [The] Good Preschool Teacher. His work was about interviewing and finding out, “What does it mean to be good or bad?”

And so it’s interesting, there’s lots and lots of examples of it. I think that people tend to think about… maybe a good metaphor for this as we go and watch movies, right? And you can watch a movie that’s completely fictional, that’s completely just for fun or for pleasure or whatever. And sometimes you find in that movie something that really it makes you cry or makes you laugh so hard that you remember it all night, for the next three days, and you’re talking to everyone about it, right? And it’s like, why does that come up for you? Why does that happen for you?

And I think that, for me, that’s been a really big question. It happens because somehow we were touched between our head and our heart. So we made some head-and-heart connection, and maybe that’s just a simplistic way of saying, like, our whole physical being – who we were spiritually, physically and all these things – was touched in this way that made us kind of rethink or reconstitute our own thinking in maybe different ways, where we say: “Wow, maybe I’m going to live life just a little bit different here.”

I think Tuesdays With Morrie might be a book example that is great – you go in and you interview someone who’s in a hospital and you spend lots of time with them. I just think there are lots of great examples. In early-childhood we have many, many books, and books with chapters in them. My friend [Elizabeth] Quintero writes on storying childhood, that was one of her more recent books. I’ve got a couple of chapters about “loving tulips across three years” with infants, toddlers and preschoolers and their families in a school experience. And I wrote those chapters in her storying book.

So I think there are lots and lots of people who are actually in early-childhood using qualitative research and bringing forward those stories and examples. I know there are a ton of people that I’m not mentioning. [Elizabeth] Swadener and Mimi Block are really good examples of folks who have sort of brought to the foreground some of these qualitative research ideas in their work. And I know that folks in Australia –
Nicola Yelland has done a ton of editing and has a whole series of books on reimagining the images that we hold, the images of early-childhood education. A lot of that is the qualitative work that we do. I hope that that kind of answers as directly as I can.

I’m looking at my bookshelf and I’m thinking… oh my gosh, I forgot to mention Vivian Paley. If you’ve ever read any of her books – starting with one of her first books, White Teacher, where she talks about being a Jewish teacher in the time of desegregation and what it meant for her to work along a whole year with children coming into classroom maybe even for the first time. So then she has written a series of books where it’s a year long in her classroom. One of my favorites is, You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. She asks her preschoolers, “What would happen if I put the rule up: ‘You can’t say you can’t play’?” So that children have to actually integrate into play together.

And then she interviews the parents and brings their data back to the kindergarteners. She interviews the kindergartners themselves, talks to them about it. She interviews the first graders; she interviews second graders. She keeps bringing this data back to the children to keep asking, “What would happen if we created this rule?” Rather than just putting the rule in the room, she actually has them study the idea behind the rule. So this is the kind of qualitative stuff that I think just brings about morsels of greatness.


Yeah. Really great content. I hope people are writing these book titles and authors down because I think it sounds like it’s really great stuff to read and there’s only so much great stuff out there. So I would encourage people to do that.




So now what do you hope that ECE’s [early-childhood educators] themselves can take away from your work on qualitative research?

I’m a believer that teachers in their practice – in their best places of their practice – utilize techniques of action research so that they see themselves as teacher-researchers, and then they figure out what that means to them. Are they a participant researcher? Do they work alongside of children in the research? What kinds of questions to they ask, and how do they want to know something about their classroom? And that they clinically look at that through what the literature says. What does the contemporary literature say? What does the seminal work tell us from Vygotsky and Piaget and Maria Montessor? And then how do we design some sort of methodology that we might use, whether it’s interviewing children or looking in through digital technologies and video recording, or whether it’s just living side-by-side and taking notes about what they do, or asking parents and guardians and people who are also in in the child’s life – probably in a lot of ways a lot more than we are – asking them, “What’s happening in the home? What’s happening in the community? What’s happening around the child that’s influencing who the child is and how they’re growing up and what they’re thinking about? And who they’re becoming and what they’re learning?”

So I think that for early-childhood educators, I think it’s really important that they see themselves as an inquirer. What do they want to know about what’s happening with children? Because I think sometimes we get swallowed up on our daily lives and then we work in programs that might say to us, “You have a canned curriculum that you have to use, or a canned assessment that you have to use.” And it’s like, “Well, does the assessment ever allow for my own generative thinking? Does that allow me to actually think holistically about the child in any way, shape or form?” So those are the kinds of questions I think teachers are asking. And I think for them to bring those stories out, bring those narratives out, bring that data forward, is really important. And share it.

I think that’s a great message. I mean, the more that teachers and educators can use their education, their skills and their expertise to do their own thinking and inquiring and research in their classroom environment I think is a really great message for them.

If people want to go to find out more about your work, where should they go, Will?


I think one of the things that I found about myself… I’ve tried to keep up to date with the Google Scholar. So I tried to pull all my work together through Google Scholar. The thing is that even with that, if you’re not directly related to a university or you don’t have a city library card or something like that where you can access my work, I have created some accessible pieces and then some are sort of locked away in those journals where the journal really needs you to go through their journal to get it.

But at PSU we have this system for our library where they’ve created reference works. And what they do with those is they create a page for me and they pull together my papers so that people can actually see and directly download and read a lot of my work. Not everything is there. But there are a few sites. One is, if people go to the Portland State University website and then search for me they’ll find me. They’ll find my own website that I have that also lists some of my research and scholarly work so that they can go out to the web and find it. Or they can link over to our library services where they don’t have to be a member and they can download some of those things right from there. So that’s probably a good way.

Another way is, if someone goes to the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s conference, I’m usually there. Come find me! I go to lots of different conferences. Just look for my name and see if I’m there. I hope to be very approachable. I hope to be someone that people can see a smiling face.


Excellent. This has been a really interesting conversation, Will. I think you gave a great takeaway for educators about being inquisitive researchers themselves. I think the whole idea of using qualitative research to inform what we’re doing in the classroom is super-important to early-childhood education. So thanks for coming on the show today.


Yeah, thank you for having me. This has been a great pleasure to talk about it.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.